Songkran – Thailand’s Water Festival – Review & Travel Tips from a Local Expat

What exactly is Songkran? A quick explanation is that it’s the celebration of the traditional Thai New Year. In the not-so-distant past, families would pour water over each other as a way of washing away bad luck and starting fresh for the new year. It has evolved into the world’s biggest water fight and street party.

The official holidays are April 13, 14, and 15, but it seems to run longer and longer each year. Different regions of Thailand have their big blowout celebrations on staggered dates in order to allow the work force to visit family out in the province. This year, Pattaya scheduled their city-wide party on the 19th (a Sunday).

Here in Pattaya, I got hit by my first bowl of water on the 11th. It was just a couple of kids getting an early start but validates my point that it grows longer each year. It’s sort of like how Christmas in America keeps creeping closer and closer into Thanksgiving.

On the 13th, 14th, and 15h, it was very quiet on my soi (street). Most of the locals had left to visit their family up in Isaan. The usual ex-pats who roam the soi seemed to be hiding out at home.

The pork barbecue man on the corner was absent, there was no kuay teow (soup noodles) available at night, and half of the vendors in the fresh market were gone.

From Monday the 13th to Friday the 17th, a short trip out would result in you getting wet but it wasn’t too crazy and the traffic was fine. The only real partying was over at the beach.

The Calm Before The Storm

On Saturday the 20th, the water tanker trucks started showing up in droves. Flat bed trucks loaded with blocks of ice arrived and started making deliveries. Stages were being erected. Multitudes of 55-gallon drums, gigantic trash cans, and any receptacles that could hold water were placed at the ready.

Songkran 2015 – Pattaya

On Sunday, the party kicked off. What was it like?

Every available pickup truck was packed with twelve children, eight adults, two 55-gallon drums of ice-cold water, and coolers of beer and whiskey.

There were stands set up everywhere selling powder, water guns, and ice. Music was blaring. People were dancing, throwing water, laughing, and having a great time.

During Songkran, anyone out and about is fair game. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking, riding a motorbike, or pushing a bicycle. Nobody cares if you’re dressed in a three-piece suit. Even police officers directing traffic are drenched with water and powder. The only people off-limits are the food vendors. It’s not cool to splash water on someone grilling chicken and squid.

Should You Plan Your Trip To Thailand During Songkran?

Want to get wet? Come to Thailand during Songkran. Don’t want to get a hundred or more ice-bucket challenges dumped on your head when you least expect it? Plan your trip some other time. If you are offended by loud music, crowds, and partying, then Songkran is not for you.

Songkran is a unique experience. You can’t even have this type of party in the majority of countries. I couldn’t imagine trying to do this in the U.S. There would be shots fired, fights, stabbings, and utter chaos. One person would get pissed off that they got splashed and then the riots would begin.

Everyone here enjoys the activities and there are few problems. It’s just a really good time. Most of the injuries associated with the holiday are traffic related—no different than holidays in America.

One thing that I think some Westerners may have a problem with is getting powder rubbed in their face. Why? If you’re germaphobic, that aspect will make you cringe. People will rub a powder/water mix all over your face, immediately after they’ve rubbed their hands on the stranger’s face in front of you. Personally, I’ve never had a problem after having made it through three Songkran celebrations. If you’re one of those who gets sick if someone sneezes on you, it’s something you might want to consider. They were selling plastic masks (like hockey goalies wear) this year which are good to keep the powder off your face and act as a barrier. I saw a lot of people wearing safety glasses as well.

Travel and Safety Tips

I may sound like Captain Obvious here, but think about a few things:

Everything you carry with you during Songkran is subject to getting soaked. When you get to Thailand, buy a waterproof bag at the market. Stuff that in your backpack and keep your camera, phone, etc., inside the dry bag.

If you have an iPhone, an iPad, or a Samsung Galaxy, get a LifeProof Case before you leave home. You can even take underwater video with this case. I had one for my iPhone 4 and it worked great. You’ll be able to take pictures and video without having to worry during Songkran. I hate to say it, but my iPhone in a LifeProof case did slightly better than my GoPro. The audio through the LifeProof case is ok, where the audio on the GoPro is muffled. (I realize they’re not in the same category of devices.) The bottom line is you don’t really need a GoPro for Songkran. Your iPhone will do.

Buy a smaller, waterproof bag for your money and passport. Keep that in a security (zipped) pocket on your person. DO NOT wear it around your neck! Most have a weak string necklace which makes it very easy for someone to snatch it from you. Many tourists I saw were walking around with their cash on display in these little pouches. It was like a sign that said:

Please take my cash! Here it is! You can even see how much I’ve got! I’m a dumbass!

Thailand is one of the safest countries in the world (in my opinion), but there are pickpockets here just like anywhere else. Don’t put things on display when it’s not necessary.

As a matter of fact, try to carry the least amount of stuff as possible—less to get wet or pick-pocketed. Remember that you’ll be navigating crowds and your attention will be elsewhere.

Wear shoes that cover your toes and protect your feet, whether that’s running shoes or Crocs. Yeah, everyone else is wearing flip flops because they’re getting wet. However, everything is slippery. Thailand’s sois and sidewalks aren’t perfect. There’s a lot of slip and fall hazards to watch out for. You need some type of protection for your feet so you don’t get a cut and then walk through a six-inch puddle of dirty water.

Avoid traveling during the peak times. If you’re going to party during Songkran, get here early and leave a couple of days after the big blowout party in your area.

Party With The Locals

This year, I took a stroll down Walking Street and Beach Road (the tourist areas) and was disappointed. It was predominately farangs (foreigners) running around with water guns. That’s just not funny, nor entertaining.

I ended up hanging out at a bar a few blocks away from the main action. The farang to Thai ratio was better balanced there. Afterward, I headed back to my soi where there are even less foreigners.

My advice is to take a stroll through the main tourist area just to say you did, but find some locals to hang out with, elsewhere. All you have to do is buy a few beers or a bottle of whisky and find a place to sit down. Thai people are generally very friendly and inviting, especially during Songkran. They won’t mind a couple of farangs who show up with some beer.

Best Weapon for Songkran

Get a plastic bowl. Don’t waste your money on a water gun. All a water gun does is make you, as an adult, look incredibly stupid. It won’t even get someone’s attention during the chaos. Water guns should be reserved for children. A plastic bowl can be reloaded almost immediately and delivers an appropriate-sized shot of water in one blast. It will get someone’s attention and make for a funny moment.

The Aftermath

Songkran is a good time, but as a local I’m glad it’s over. A side effect of Songkran is that the streets are cleaner than they’ll be the entire year.

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Chiang Mai

Come to Thailand During Songkran 2016

Life is short. You should enjoy it. If you’re looking for some of the best memories you could ever ask for, come to Thailand during Songkran. You won’t be disappointed.